My kindergarten class is like a small-town community. We each hold important roles that make learning fun and engaging. Each day, Mal, our 5-year-old mayor, shares our learning goals and reviews academic skills previously covered. Ollie, our meteorologist, shares the daily weather report, and Ashley, our record keeper, reminds me to record our Zoom session for those absent that day. All of my students regularly participate in discussions about the logistics of the day and our learning goals. My teaching through these leadership roles has increased my kindergartners’ achievement in written language, communication and other academic skills.

We have learned that working together has increased cooperative learning opportunities, too, like providing constructive feedback on a writing project in real time to our remote-learning peers, as we sit in our classroom. All of this is important in forming a learning community that strives to achieve academically and succeed in life.

Now that we are back in person, all of the children in my classroom have adapted well and are thriving. Even when we were remote, my students and I have found that our community was an empowering place to be and learn together. Throughout this isolating year, my kindergartners, led by our mayor, Mal, stayed involved and engaged, often showing up early on Zoom. They weren’t just coming to learn; they were coming to be part of our community.

This experience has opened my eyes to the lessons we can take from the pandemic and the possibilities of reimagining our schools so we can better serve our students and communities. Now, as New Mexico is proposing more days and longer hours for students in classrooms, I am wondering if that’s what is best. Even before the pandemic, educators and policymakers knew our educational system was lacking.

Rather than simply adding more instructional days to the calendar or more hours to our school day to compensate for the challenges of the pandemic and learning loss, we should use this time to examine the most important skills our students need for a successful future.

To me, these skills begin with social-emotional learning. These include empowering students to use their voices to advocate what they need, teaching strong communications skills and self-reflection. The focus on these skills will lead to better solutions to harness leadership in the classroom and ultimately to better academic outcomes.

Like his peers, Mayor Mal finds learning fun. Because he is a leader, he has engaged in the standards more deeply. Mal leads by example, sharing to our learning community that, “He is a good, kinder leader because he teaches his friends what to do in class and how to do good listening.”

In fact, he encourages others to lead, providing an opportunity for a very shy, new student to believe in herself and say with pride, “When I am amazing in class, that makes all my friends amazing, too.” The questioning, discussion and negotiation among the members of our learning community are rich and are just what my students need to combat any learning loss. This pandemic has awarded us all an opportunity to rethink and enhance education. Let’s not waste it and instead empower our students as leaders in their own educational journey. They deserve nothing less.

Aimee Parra is a kindergarten teacher leader at Mesilla Elementary in Las Cruces and the 2020-21 Teach Plus New Mexico Fellow of the Year.

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